It is no secret that the top leadership of the UGTT is largely leftist, or at least progressive in the wide sense of the term. For these reasons, the UGTT remained strong and decidedly outside the control of Islamists. This was not for lack of trying, through courtship initially, appeasement afterwards, and finally coercion.
Attacked but not beleaguered
On December 4, 2012, as the union was gearing up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the assassination of its founder, its iconic headquarters, Place Mohamed Ali, was attacked by groups known as Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. The incident was ugly, public and had an immediate impact. These leagues, which originated in community organisations in cities across the country, were designed to keep order and security immediately after Ben Ali's fall on January 14, 2011, but were later disbanded, and are now dominated by Islamists of various orientations.
They have been targeting the media, artists and members of the former regime under slogans such as purification or "cleansing of the old regime" and "protection of the revolution". One prominent action was their violent attack against the party Nida Tounes, headed by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, which resulted in the first political killing after the revolution, that of Nida member Lotfi Nagadh in the southern town of Tataouine.
The attack, which was the latest in a series of actions, such as throwing rubbish at UGTT offices in several regions a few months ago, recalled the atmosphere of 1978 and another affront to the union's existence. It responded by boycotting the government, organising regional strikes and marches, and eventually calling for the general strike.
For the first time, UGTT spoke out against the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda party and declared it an enemy, despite stating on many occasions professing neutrality. Anti-Al-Nahda parties and individuals are now backing UGTT. In Tunisia, contradictions have suddenly sharpened, not unlike the situation in Egypt, where President Mohammed Morsi managed to unite warring opposition groups against his party when he gave himself sweeping powers.
Tunisia today stands divided, with the UGTT on one side and Al-Nahda on the other. If history is any guide, the UGTT will prevail this time as well. What is in doubt is the cost to a revolution plagued by a set of circumstances and developments largely beyond the control of the country.
This is also Al-Nahda's toughest test, internally and internationally. Internally, UGTT is forcing a rift between the government and the party which dominates it by challenging the former to protect a national organisation and apply the rule of law. Internationally, UGTT has already laid bare the paramilitary nature of the Leagues as a danger to social peace in Tunisia on one hand, and rallied the union's powerful friends in the international labour movement on the other.
Tomorrow's general strike appears to have been averted, but with everyone involved in one way or another, we could yet see a collision of titanic proportions.
Dr. Omri holds a BA from the University of Tunis and MA and PhD from Washington University. Before joining the University of Oxford, Dr. Omri was Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis in the US.